Just like Robin Hood, Gaspard de Besse robbed from the rich (who detested him) and gave to the poor (who adored him). But while Robin Hood’s roots are shrouded in mystery, there’s no doubt about the identity of our French outlaw.
Gaspard Bouis, later known as Gaspard de Besse, was born February 9, 1757 in Besse-sur-Issole, a small village in the Var region of southern France. His father died one year later, and Gaspard was placed in the care of the local priest. The priest assumed Gaspard would follow his footsteps into a religious life and made sure he had a proper education.
However, Gaspard was a charming, handsome smooth-talker who wasn’t suited to the priestly way of life. At the age of seventeen, he left the small town of Besse and went to Toulon for a taste of the city. It’s in Toulon that he began his life of crime and it’s also there that history and myth become a bit entangled.
Gaspard turns to a Life of Crime
According to some, Gaspard’s life changed when he saw a poor mother with four children living in appalling circumstances because her husband had been put into forced labor for stealing salt. Gaspard couldn’t abide this injustice and decided to act. He helped the father and another prisoner escape, and these two men became his lieutenants for the new band of outlaws that he soon formed. We must assume the father made more working for Gaspard than he did dealing in salt.
Another story says that army recruiters got Gaspard drunk and convinced him to enlist. After he sobered up and realized what had happened, he deserted and went to live in the mountains.
However it came about, wanted posters were pasted up all across the south of France bearing pictures of Gaspard’s handsome face. But being a resourceful young man, he made the best of his situation and decided it was the ideal time to start a new enterprise. He set up shop in a cave in Mont Vinaigre (Mount Vinegar) near Frejus, and hung out his “help wanted” sign. Soon he had a band of about fifty robbers working for him.
No Killing Allowed
To work for Gaspard, they had to abide by strict rules: he insisted that even though they carried muskets (which made people more agreeable to handing over their goods) they weren’t allowed to shoot anyone. In addition, only the rich could be robbed and part of the takings would be invested back into the community… that is, given to the poor locals. Those who benefited from Gaspard’s generosity were very loyal and happy to tip him off and hide him when the police came snooping around.
Eventually, however, Gaspard’s luck was bound to run out, and in 1779, he was arrested. He was thrown into prison in Draguignan, but escaped a few months later – possibly with the help of the jailer’s daughter. Even though Gaspard wasn’t there, his trial went ahead as scheduled and he was found guilty of armed robbery in absentia.
Gaspard, carried on robbing from the rich and giving to the poor for another year or so. Then one evening, after he and his merry band had relieved some travelers of their heavy burden in the gorges of Ollioules, they went out to dinner to celebrate. It was in the auberge at La Valette where he was arrested. One story says that he was captured by accident when someone tipped off the police that there was a band of criminals in the auberge. The lawmen swooped in and arrested them without even knowing it was the infamous Gaspard de Besse and his gang. Another version says he was turned in by a jilted lover.
This time, there was no escape for Gaspard. On October 25, 1781, at twenty-four years old, Gaspard de Besse was tied to the wheel of torture and met a slow and agonizing death in Aix en Provence. After he died, his head was cut off and nailed to a tree at the edge of the Taillades woods where he had carried out many of his robberies.
To the state, Gaspard was a criminal, but to the people, he was a hero. They felt that he took back what the politicians, tax collectors, and money lenders had unfairly taken from them. He had become a legend, and the people fondly remembered him as a big-hearted bandit, and a defender of the poor.
But what about his treasure? Surely he must have had a fortune stashed away somewhere. With their beloved Gaspard gone, the locals turned their thoughts to finding the riches he left behind. Surely he would have wanted them to find it and put it to good use, wouldn’t he?
It was rumored that Gaspard’s hoard was hidden somewhere in the region of Cuges les Pins, just east of Marseille, and everyone grabbed their shovels and went looking for it. Some searched under the cover of darkness to avoid having to share, should they be the lucky ones to find it. Every chateau in the area was searched from top to bottom and every field looked like it was infested with moles, but his treasure was never found… as far as we know. Even today, if you are in the area of Cuges les Pins, you might see some people with their metal detectors, still hoping to find Gaspard’s hoard.
*More about Provence – You can find out more about this beloved bandit and other Provençal characters in my new book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales From the South of France.
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